The Subtleties of Donald Trump's Demagoguery

In reflecting on last week’s State of the Union it is important to remember that there were calls, going into it, for Trump to be presidential and the script was written, on the surface, to provide exactly that. He delivered a common ground, bi-partisan, coming together veneer that his advisers believe might take some wind out of the sails of the resistance and also appeal to the independents who have been abandoning the Trump ship over the last year.

But underneath those superficial references what we got was something more dastardly and insidious.

I’m not referring to the omissions:

Guns: “We saw strangers shielding strangers from a hail of gunfire on the Las Vegas strip.”

But this administration has made no effort at gun reform of any kind.

Immigrants: “Struggling communities, especially immigrant communities, will also be helped by immigration policies that focus on the best interests of American workers and American families.”

But all the while this administration has been targeting immigrants and drumming up hate against them.

Or the half-truths:

Jobs: “We have created 2.4 million new jobs.”

Which, it is worth noting, is less than in any of the past four years.

Taxes: “Our massive tax cuts provide tremendous relief for the middle class and small businesses.”

While more than 80 percent of the benefit over time goes to the wealthiest Americans.

Stocks: “The stock market has smashed one record after another, gaining $8 trillion in value. That is great news for Americans' 401k, retirement, pension, and college savings accounts.”

But half of Americans have none of their wealth in the stock market, middle-income families have $14k in the market on average and it is only at the top of the wealth distribution, where you find people who have an average of $250k and more in the market.

Nor even to the empty policy promises that will never come to pass:

Criminal justice: “That is why this year we will embark on reforming our prisons to help former inmates who have served their time get a second chance.”

Infrastructure: “I am calling on the Congress to produce a bill that generates at least $1.5 trillion for the new infrastructure investment we need.”

Family leave: “And let us support working families by supporting paid family leave.”

Drug pricing: “One of my greatest priorities is to reduce the price of prescription drugs. In many other countries, these drugs cost far less than what we pay in the United States. That is why I have directed my administration to make fixing the injustice of high drug prices one of our top priorities. Prices will come down.

Nor even the subtle, or not so subtle, jabs at those whom he sees as his opposition or more significantly whom too many in his base see as the enemy.

NFL players: “…reminds us why we salute our flag, why we put our hands on our hearts for the pledge of allegiance, and why we proudly stand for the national anthem.”

Dreamers: “Because Americans are dreamers too.”

But what was most terrifying for me was that at the heart of the Trump speech was, and I don’t write this lightly, the backdrop for fascism. I know that sounds extreme, but I think we know from history that this speech was from the playbook on what authoritarians must do in their early days: Trump didn’t directly demonize anyone, he seemed reasonable, spoke of common ground and unity, and even on the hottest of hot-button issues, immigration reform, he described a “compromise that would make no one happy.”

But, at the heart of his speech he did the one most important thing for any want-to-be authoritarian to do: he drowned us in vivid examples, language and human expressions of all the things we need to FEAR. Because FEAR is the essential ingredient in this toxic recipe.

Trump signaled fear with each of these phrases:

  1. "We endured floods and fires and storms."

  2. "...hail of gunfire on the Las Vegas strip."

  3. "Sixty children trapped at a California summer camp threatened by wildfires."

  4. "…a guy who took a bullet, almost died."

  5. "…the aftermath of that terrible shooting."

  6. "…the war on American energy."

  7. "The era of economic surrender is over."

  8. "Open borders have allowed drugs and gangs to pour into our most vulnerable communities."

  9. "Most tragically, they have caused the loss of many innocent lives."

  10. "On the eve of Nisa's 16th birthday, neither of them came home."

  11. "These two precious girls were brutally murdered while walking together in their hometown."

  12. "Six members of the savage gang MS-13 have been charged with Kayla and Nisa's murders."

  13. "And 320 million hearts are breaking for you."

  14. "…make sure that other families never have to endure this pain."

  15. "…protect our citizens."

  16. "…defend Americans—to protect their safety, their families, their communities…"

  17. "ICE agent…spending the last 15 years fighting gang violence and getting dangerous criminals off our streets."

  18. "At one point, MS-13 leaders ordered CJ's murder."

  19. "…closes the terrible loopholes exploited by criminals and terrorists to enter our country."

  20. "In recent weeks, two terrorist attacks in New York were made possible by the visa lottery and chain migration. In the age of terrorism, these programs present risks we can no longer afford."

  21. "In 2016, we lost 64,000 Americans to drug overdoses: 174 deaths per day. Seven per hour. We must get much tougher on drug dealers."

  22. "…a pregnant, homeless woman preparing to inject heroin."

  23. "…we face rogue regimes, terrorist groups, and rivals like China and Russia."

  24. "In confronting these dangers, we know that weakness is the surest path to conflict."

  25. "Perhaps someday in the future there will be a magical moment when the countries of the world will get together to eliminate their nuclear weapons. Unfortunately, we are not there yet."

  26. "…extinguish ISIS from the face of the Earth."

  27. "…territory once held by these killers in Iraq and Syria."

  28. "Kenton Stacy was severely wounded by an explosion."

  29. "Terrorists who do things like place bombs in civilian hospitals are evil."

  30. "When possible, we annihilate them. When necessary, we must be able to detain and question them."

  31. "Terrorists are not merely criminals. They are unlawful enemy combatants. And when captured overseas, they should be treated like the terrorists they are."

  32. "We have foolishly released hundreds of dangerous terrorists, only to meet them again on the battlefield—including the ISIS leader, al-Baghdadi."

  33. "…in the fight against ISIS and al-Qa'ida, we continue to have all necessary power to detain terrorists—wherever we chase them down."

  34. "...clarity about our adversaries."

  35. "…the crimes of their corrupt dictatorship."

  36. "…communist and socialist dictatorships in Cuba and Venezuela."

  37. "But no regime has oppressed its own citizens more totally or brutally than the cruel dictatorship in North Korea."

  38. "North Korea's reckless pursuit of nuclear missiles could very soon threaten our homeland."

  39. "Past experience has taught us that complacency and concessions only invite aggression and provocation."

  40. "…got us into this dangerous position."

  41. "We need only look at the depraved character of the North Korean regime to understand the nature of the nuclear threat it could pose to America and our allies."

  42. "…the dictatorship sentenced Otto to 15 years of hard labor. ... horribly injured and on the verge of death. He passed away just days after his return."

  43. "…a menace that threatens our world."

  44. "…witness to the ominous nature of this regime."

  45. "One day, he tried to steal coal from a railroad car to barter for a few scraps of food. In the process, he passed out on the train tracks, exhausted from hunger."

  46. "He woke up as a train ran over his limbs."

  47. "He then endured multiple amputations without anything to dull the pain."

  48. "His brother and sister gave what little food they had to help him recover and ate dirt themselves—permanently stunting their own growth."

  49. "Later, he was tortured by North Korean authorities. His tormentors wanted to know if he had met any Christians."

  50. "His father was caught trying to escape, and was tortured to death."

Don’t let this subtle yet significant victory for Trump slip by. As we seek to protect our country from the dangerous path we are on, we must keep our eye on the ball. The fight here is about much more than the immigration “reform” package that he hawked or those “forgotten communities” that we slyly waved at. Of course, they matter, but Trump’s sleight of hand might lead us to debate those policies and miss that the deep fight here is about how not to fall into a cycle of fear. He is stoking up the kind of fear that over time makes the unthinkable possible.

We must confront it with generosity, hope, empathy and love because when any group of people becomes afraid, threatened, and scared of the other, and of the larger world, we circle the wagons. We make our enemies, and anyone else who is different and could be an enemy, just a little less human than we are. And then once they aren’t quite human, no longer sacred, not made in God’s image, like us, then we can treat them differently, or less-than, without feeling that we have violated our own moral code or compromised our core values.

And there is more; according to historian Dr. Lucy Maulsby, “Trump’s appeal to nationalism and to martyrdom (just think of all the weeping mothers), his speech pattern (short sentences, word repetition [how many times he said 'America' or 'American']), his use of the crowd (chanting USA, USA), to undermine and ultimately erase the individual, his reliance on a cult of personality (which, among other things, exists above the particulars of policy and serves to separate the leader from the actions of his followers or party), is truly frightening.”

When we are scared and our fears are churned up in this way, our rational functions are diminished. Fight or flight takes over. Our circle of concern grows smaller and the choices become much more black and white—eat or be eaten.

The spirit of hope, opportunity and generosity that has been at the heart of the American journey and animated it as a promised land once again faces a fundamental threat. If fear and hate creep in to the psyche of America, take root in the soul of America, then the promise of a gleaming City on a Hill might go the way of other great nations who when gripped with fear, hate and decline joined in to commit the unthinkable.

You can do something about this:

  1. Reach out to someone you disagree with politically and invite a conversation to remind yourself and them that we have more in common than divides us.

  2. Support, with your money and time, an organization that works with the communities that are being cast as the others (immigrants, Muslims, etc).

  3. Teach your children about their own unique family story and how it ties into the diverse stories of other families.

  4. Re-read the Declaration of Independence, Preamble to the Constitution, and Gettysburg Address and re-commit yourself to what makes America special.

  5. See "Hamilton," visit a national park.

  6. Support a young person running for office.

Take Back America.

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